I should be in bed. That was the thought that was going through my head as I bounced off the ceiling, again, and basically was tossed around like a dog with a toy. Unfortunately, my airplane and I were the toy, not the dog. We’d flown inadvertently into a thunderstorm.
I was riding right seat in a King Air 200. Officially a passenger but unofficially helping out on a Part 135 revenue flight. It was good experience and usually pretty interesting. We routinely flew organ harvest with this airplane, which, for the uninitiated, means going to a relatively close city to collect donor organs from a recently deceased person. One hour legs were the norm, sometimes less. The people involved were very careful to keep our team away from the family of the donor so despite the fact we know that there is horror and sadness on the donor side, we are part of the life-giving side of the equation.
But for the air crew, none of that really mattered. The doctors are the heroes. We just drive the bus. And get left to freeze or cook to death in the airplane, depending on the season. These flights were almost invariably in the middle of the night. The FBO would be closed. The doctors would be picked up as soon as the engines stopped and usually we’d be left with the airplane, in the dark, on the ramp. This was before Instagram, smart phones, and 4G. We couldn’t run the airplane for heat or cooling (that’s a pretty expensive HVAC unit turning), and of course the King Air didn’t have an APU.
This particular night happened just like normal. I received a call just as I sat down to dinner, of course, about a possible mission. We were required to be ready to launch in an hour from the call so I scarfed down my dinner and prepped to head to the airport, 30 minutes away. I’d already been going all day, so the idea of flying all night didn’t sound entirely appealing but usually we had some down time during the organ harvest. I could catch a nap then.
Fifteen minutes later, I got the call to go to the airport and prep. I loaded my gear and headed out. It was always a mad scramble to get there, get everything prepped, flight planning done, and call in ready to dispatch to meet our required response time. I met the captain and we had everything squared away in short order and made the call with time to spare.
Then began the next phase of waiting.
We would routinely get the call to dispatch, then end up waiting at the airport for several hours while the logistics were worked on by the company. I can’t imagine what it’s like to get the paperwork done, approvals in place, doctor teams ready to go, organ recipient headed to the hospital, etc. Our little piece of the puzzle was simple by comparison. But sitting in a cold hangar at 11pm, prepped and ready to go, waiting on the phone was always tedious. We were ready to go – let’s go!
Several hours after declaring we were ready, we received the call. We flew to Chapel Hill and picked up both doctor teams, one from Duke, one from Chapel Hill. I liked flying for these guys as we could usually pick up both teams with one stop. Each team would be a surgeon and his surgical nurse. There were two teams total, a heart team, and an everything-else team. Lungs, eyes, kidneys, whatever, the second team took care of all of them. The heart team was the priority. They went in first, removed the heart, and then headed straight to us. We immediately dispatched to whatever town we were assigned, dropped them off to an ambulance waiting with lights on, and then quick turned to go back and wait on the next team. The heart team felt like a real air ambulance, or NASCAR pit stop. Take your pick. The second team was always a little more sedate.
This night we’d dropped off both teams for harvest and then bedded down for a frozen nap in the airplane because of course the FBO was locked up tight. This night we couldn’t catch a ride to the hospital, which was always the preferred choice, because we could sleep in a chair in a waiting room. Several hours of waiting later, the heart team showed up and we fired up those beautiful PT-6s and started heading out. It was now 3am and we leveled off for a low level quick run back to RDU. It was a very dark night with no moon, the weather was severe clear and there was nothing to discuss. ATC was quiet, we were quiet, and it was dead calm.
“Lifeflight XXXX you are clear to deviate as needed.”
I looked at the captain. He looked at me. I looked out the window and down at the radar. Nothing. I started adjusting the radar, trying to locate anything that maybe it or I had missed as I called back to RDU.
“Lifeflight is negative on any radar returns. What are we deviating for?”
“I’m showing a level three/four thunderstorm at your 12 o’clock, two miles. Suggest a right…”
At 250 knots, two miles doesn’t take long. While he was mid-sentence suggesting a turn, we entered the cell. I don’t particularly like stalls. Steep turns are kinda fun after a while, but the first couple still get my heart going. Heaven forbid we ever take an airplane upside down. Aerobatic pilots are just plane crazy. Shiny side up is my motto. We started getting tossed around like a football in a washing machine. About the third time I slammed my head into the ceiling, seriously wondering if I was going to be knocked unconscious, I had the strangely calm thought that I should and could be home in bed right now instead of getting ready to die in this airplane.
As I was calmly contemplating my poor life choices, I looked over at the captain. He was a damn good pilot. I’d flown with him many times, both in the plane and in the simulator for recurrent training. He’d wisely given up trying to hold any semblance of altitude and was simply riding the winds and trying to keep the wings level. He was sawing stop to stop left and right trying to keep up shiny side up. I calmly thought that I’d never seen the controls go to the stops except on the ground check. And how odd is it with that much deflection in place that there is no movement in the airplane to correspond? Meanwhile the sound of the rain was so loud I couldn’t hear him, the radios, or anything else.
About this time, the radar mysteriously decided that it would start working. Suddenly red appeared all over my radar. Of course we were inside the cell so I couldn’t tell how far we had to go to get to the other side as the distant returns can be hidden by the closer returns. About this time, the Captain yelled that he was going to turn around and take us back out the way we’d come. I yelled back that I had a pretty good paint on the cell and I thought we’d have a better chance continuing on rather than going back. Knowing the blasted radar had led us into this predicament in the first place, he was unsure, but I stressed that I was getting a good paint now and I see it was valid returns. He reluctantly agreed and we continued on for another 30 seconds and then popped out to clear skies and stars winking above.
After quick work to make sure everything was still functioning correctly and about the time you either laugh or cry from something like this, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to find the surgeon standing just behind me. I pulled my headset off and he explained that the ride was a bit rough and his nurse didn’t like it. Could we please do something about it. I told him to go sit down and buckle in and not to take his seatbelt off till I personally told him he was allowed to. He wasn’t excited about being told what to do, something about a God complex and surgeons?
As I watched him to make sure he did as comanded, I saw the nurse. She was in the rear most seat in the club configuration, facing forward. Behind her seat was a wooden panel that separates the passenger area from the air stair door and potty area. Thankfully she had her seatbelt on, but I’m not sure how. Only two parts of her entire body were touching the airplane. A small spot on the top of her head that was touching the wooden panel, and the heels of her shoes. Otherwise she was stiff as a piece of iron, as white as a ghost, and hyperventilating.
I needed a change of underwear myself so I felt for her. However as I said you either laugh or cry in these situations. I pulled my headset back on, pulled the mike close, and said into the crew only intercom, “I think we are going to need that heart before we land.”
“Why?” asked the captain, confused.
“I don’t think the nurse is going to make it.”
We had a black humor chuckle but stayed serious as we assumed we’d bent the airplane and were lucky to have come out the back side of the thunderstorm in once piece.
We landed uneventfully and sent our shaken surgical team and their frozen heart on its way. We crawled over every inch of that airplane looking for bent metal or signs of stress, sure we’d overstressed it in some way. Other than the nice bath it had endured, it looked perfect. Score one for Beechcraft. This was many years ago and that plane is flying today, many phase inspections later. She suffered not a bit from that wild ride.
To this day (over 20 years later) I’m the biggest chicken in the air around convective weather. If I can stay 20+ miles away from any thunderstorm, or even any cumulonimbus clouds, the rest of my life, I’m perfectly happy.
We did eventually go back and get the other team. The skies were perfectly clear. Apparently there was one isolated cell that just appeared during the night, and disappeared before we headed back that way only a short time later. It wasn’t part of any weather briefing or anything we could have planned for.
Our radar was another issue. We eventually learned that the radome had been repaired, many years before under different ownership. Whatever the repair material was caused some sort of attenuation, but only intermittently. Once we discovered the problem, we had the radome repaired correctly and the radar worked perfectly from then on. There had been no way to tell when it would work and when it would not, and no way to tell it was repaired incorrectly before. All those hours of flying in clear skies it had probably stopped working on occasion but since it was only painting black anyway, we never knew. It just happened to let us down at exactly the wrong time and place that night.
Editor’s Note: This is the latest article in our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org